The key Libyan oil town of Brega was again the theatre of heavy fighting on Sunday as rebel forces advanced only to be forced back in an ambush by forces loyal to Moamar Gaddafi.
The clashes come as Libyan diplomat Ali Treiki became the latest in a string of officials to abandon Mr Gaddafi’s regime, while South African Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu said allowing Mr Gaddafi to escape trial could be “the lesser of two evils” if it meant saving lives.
Volunteer fighters, who had entered the town 800 kilometres east of the capital Tripoli just hours earlier, said they were staging a tactical withdrawal after being ambushed by loyalists of Libya’s veteran strongman.
An AFP correspondent saw some 300 to 400 rebels regrouping on the road back into rebel-held territory around 10 kilometres to the east.
Loud explosions could still be heard from the outskirts of the city as the rebels’ best-trained fighters took on the Gaddafi loyalists.
Reinforcements were seen heading to the frontline on a minor road into the town.
Most of the rebel volunteers acknowledged that they had neither the military training and discipline, nor the knowledge of the terrain to mount a frontal assault on Brega.
They said they were dependent on the rebels’ few trained fighters, most of them defectors from the regular army.
“There is no commander. We are all together,” said Abdul Wahed Agouri, a 28-year-old volunteer.
“We are not army. We can’t move closer to Brega because we don’t know where the enemy is. We don’t the area. We have to wait for the army [defectors].”
Intermittent explosions rocked the desert landscape as the rebel advance guard exchanged rocket and artillery fire with Gaddafi forces inside the town.
The AFP correspondent saw three wounded rebels being transported on the back of trucks to a staging point east of the town where they were transferred to regular ambulances to be taken to hospital in the rebel-held city of Ajdabiya to the east.
“This guy sustained bullet wounds in fighting in the streets of Brega,” said Dr Ezzedine Farsi, as one stretcher case was brought in with injuries to both his arm and leg.
One of around 20 medical personnel on hand at the staging post east of the town, Dr Farsi said that some rebel fighters had also been engaging Gaddafi loyalists on the western side of Brega after being caught on the wrong side of the rapidly moving frontline.
Aircraft from the NATO-led coalition enforcing a no-fly zone were heard over the town. The rebels said they heard air strikes on loyalist positions in the town overnight although there was no immediate confirmation from the alliance.
Several volunteers knelt down to pray out in the open.
Earlier on Sunday, the rebels had pushed forward to seize the vast university campus on the outskirts of Brega.
The town has been the scene of intense exchanges for several days with both sides advancing only to pull back under fire.
“Those planes that circled last night didn’t hit anything,” said rebel fighter Osama Abdullah, suggesting the absence of air strikes was the result of NATO taking command of the coalition forces from France, the United States and Britain.
“[French president Nicolas] Sarkozy is great but NATO is not,” he said.
A Western coalition air strike killed 13 rebels late on Friday near Brega’s eastern gate. The rebel leadership called the bombing an unfortunate mistake and said air strikes were still needed against Mr Gaddafi’s better-armed units.
A friend of Abdullah who gave his name as Youssef said: “We need weapons that can fight against the tanks and Grads (rockets) that Gaddafi has”.
On Saturday, the rebels had claimed to have recaptured Brega, but pro-Gaddafi snipers were said to be still active and others were apparently holed up in the university.
Outside Brega, one person has reportedly been killed and several others wounded in the Libyan city of Misrata after pro-government forces attacked a building in the rebel-held city.
A resident says the shelling hit a building which was previously used to treat the wounded, but patients and doctors left a few days ago.
A rebel spokesman reported both close-quarters clashes, and tank and artillery fire.
He said Mr Gaddafi’s forces tried to enter the city on three fronts, but were pushed back. Two rebels were killed, he reported.
The spokesman said snipers fired at anyone on the street, and reported a civilian driver shot dead. Rebel fighters killed seven snipers, he added.
“These are true crimes which must be stopped. Gaddafi troops are endangering civilian lives and using prohibited weapons,” he charged.
In Benghazi, Transitional National Council leader Mustafa Abdul Jalil said the opposition was ready for a truce, provided regime forces end their assaults on rebel-held cities.
Government spokesman Mussa Ibrahim dismissed the offer outright.
“The rebels never offered peace. They don’t offer peace, they are making impossible demands,” he told reporters, calling the truce proposal a “trick”.
A rebel spokesman, Mustafa Gheriani, said Tripoli’s rejection of the offer showed Mr Gaddafi “wants no peace – he wants to inflict as much damage on the Libyan people as possible before leaving power”.
Mr Tutu told the BBC: “You keep having to balance what is a lesser evil. It’s quite clear in the best of worlds it would be a good thing for us to say you clobber him, capture him and let him stand for trial.
“But we know that doesn’t usually happen in the world in which we inhabit.”
He added that “the lesser of two evils” could be to let Mr Gaddafi “have a soft landing and save the lives of as many people as you possibly can.”
Meanwhile, veteran Libyan diplomat Ali Treiki has resigned from official duties, Arab League sources in Cairo said on Sunday, the latest in a string of officials to abandon Mr Gaddafi’s regime.
Mr Treiki, a former foreign minister and UN General Assembly president up until December 2010, held talks on Sunday in Cairo with Arab League chief Amr Mussa but refused to make any press statements.
He has resigned his official duties as an adviser to Mr Gaddafi but did not pledge allegiance to the rebels fighting to overthrow the Libyan regime, a league source said.
And the fate of the former Libyan foreign minister remains unclear.
The British government says no deal has been struck to offer immunity to Moussa Koussa, who arrived in Britain last week.
Foreign secretary, William Hague, says Mr Koussa is being questioned by officials at a safe location.
He says no promises have been made about his future liberty.
“There will be no immunity. He hasn’t asked for that. All he asked for was to be able to come here,” he said.
“He chose to come to the United Kingdom of his own free will. That is a good thing that he has left this despotic, murderous regime because it weakens that regime.”
Prime minister David Cameron has urged police to follow the trail of evidence over the 1988 bombing of a Boeing 747 wherever it leads.
Libyan agent Abdelbaset Ali Mohmet al-Megrahi is the only man convicted over the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, which killed 270 people.
Megrahi, who has terminal cancer, was released from a Scottish jail on compassionate grounds in August 2009, and received a hero’s welcome in Libya.
Photo: A rebel fighter gestures as he mans a machine gun mounted on a pick-up truck at a staging area to the east of Brega, in Libya, April 3, 2011.